Read an Extract
I want a hero. The words stared blackly off the page into her tired eyes. ‘So do I, Lord Byron, so do I.’ Bel sighed, pushed her tumbled brown hair back off her face and resumed her reading of the first stanza of Don Juan. She and the poet did not want heroes for the same reason, of course. The poet was despairing of finding a suitable hero for his tale; Belinda, Lady Felsham, simply yearned for romance.
No, that was not true either. Bel marked her place with one fingertip and stared into space, brooding. If she could not be honest in her own head, where could she be? Her yearnings were not simple, they were not pure and they certainly were not about knights errant or romance.
Bel rolled over on to her back on the white fur rug and tossed the book aside, narrowly missing one of the candelabra which sat in the hearth and lit her reading. It was well past two in the morning and the candles were beginning to gutter; in a few minutes she would have to get up and tend to them or go to bed and try to sleep.
She stretched out a bare foot, ruffling the silken flounces around the hem of her nightgown, and with her toes stroked the ears of the polar bear whose head snarled towards the door of her bedchamber. ‘That’s not what I want, Horace,’ she informed him. ‘I do not yearn for moonlight and soft music and lingering glances. I want a gorgeous, exciting man who will be thrilling in bed. I want a lover. A really good one.’
Bel was still becoming used to the blissful freedom and independence of widowhood. She would never have wished poor Henry dead, of course not. But if some benevolent genie had swooped down on a magic carpet and removed him to a place where he could lecture the inhabitants at tedious length on their drains, their livestock or the minutiae of tithe law, she would have rejoiced.
Henry had a knack of being stolidly at her side whenever she wished to be alone and of stating his minutely detailed and worthy opinions upon every subject under the sun. And she had itched to have control of her own money.
But no genie had come for poor Henry, just a ridiculous, apparently trivial, illness carrying him off in what, people unoriginally remarked, was his prime. Her toes were becoming cold, best to get into bed and hope the soft mattress would help lull her off to sleep.
There was a sound from outside the room. Bel tipped her head to one side, listening. Odd. Her butler and his wife, her housekeeper, slept in the basement. The footmen were quartered in the mews and her dresser and the housemaid had rooms on the topmost floor. It came again, a muted thump as though someone had stumbled on the stairs. Swallowing hard, Bel reached out a hand for the poker as her bedchamber door swung open, banging back against the wall.
Framed in the open doorway stood a large figure: long legged, broad shouldered, and dressed, she saw with a shock, in the full glory of military uniform. The flickering candlelight sparked off a considerable amount of frogging and silver braid, leaving the figure’s features in shadow. There was a glint from under his brows, the flash of white teeth. Her finger scrabbled for the poker and it rolled away from her into the cold hearth.
‘Now you are what I call a perfect coming-home gift,’ a deep, slurred, very male voice said happily. It resonated in some strange way at the base of her spine as though she was feeling it, not hearing it. ‘I don’t remember you from before, sweetheart. Still, don’t remember a lot about tonight. Thank God,’ he added piously.
The man advanced a little further into the room, close enough for his booted toes to be almost touching Horace’s snarling jaws. Bel scrabbled a little further back, but her nightgown tangled round her feet. Could she stand up? ‘Who moved the bed?’ he added indignantly.
He was drunk. It explained the slurred voice, it explained why he was unsteady on his feet and talking nonsense. It did not explain what he was doing in her bedroom.
‘Go away,’ Bel said clearly, despite her heart being somewhere in the region of her tonsils. Screaming was not going to help, no one would hear her and it might provoke him into sudden action.
‘Don’t be so unkind, sweet.’ His smile was tinged with reproach at her rejection. ‘It’s not that late.’ The landing clock struck three. ‘See?’ he observed, with a grandiloquent gesture that made him sway dangerously. ‘The night is but young.’ Despite the slurring, the voice was educated and confident. What she appeared to have in her bedchamber was a drunk English officer who could walk through locked doors - unless he was a ghost. But she could smell the brandy from where she was sprawled, and ghosts, surely, did not drink?
‘Go away,’ she repeated. Somehow standing up did not seem a good idea; she felt it might be like a rabbit starting to run right in front of a lurcher - certain to provoke a reaction. He appeared to be very good looking. Lit by the light of the two candelabra in the hearth his overlong blond hair, well-defined chin and mobile mouth were all the details she could properly make out, but watching him she was conscious of something stirring deep inside, like the smallest flick of a cat’s tail.
‘No, don’t want to do that. Not friendly, goin’ away,’ the man said decisively. ‘We’re goin’ to be friendly. Got to get acquainted, ring for a bottle of wine, have a chat first.’
First? Before what, exactly? Suddenly getting up and risking provoking him seemed an attractive option after all. Bel glanced down, realising that not only was she wearing one of her newest and prettiest thin silk nightgowns, but that was all she was wearing. Her négligé - not that it was much more decent - was thrown over the foot of the bed. She inched back as the man took a step forward.
And put one booted foot squarely into Horace’s gaping mouth. ‘Wha’ the hell?’ The momentum of his stride took him forward, his trapped foot held him back. In a welter of long limbs the intruder fell full length on the bearskin rug with Bel flattened neatly between yellowing fur and scarlet broadcloth. Her elbows gave way, her head came down with a thump on Horace’s foolish stub of a tail.
‘Ough!’ He was big. Not fat though - there was no comfortable belly to cushion the impact. She seemed to be trapped under six foot plus of solid male bone and muscle.
‘There you are,’ he said in a pleased voice, as though she had been hiding. His face was buried in her shoulder and the words rumbled against her skin as he began to nuzzle into it. His night beard rasped, sending shivers down her spine.
‘Get off.’ Bel wriggled her hands free and shoved up against his shoulders. It had rather less effect than if a wardrobe had fallen on her. At least a wardrobe would not have gone limp like this. There was absolutely nothing to lever on. ‘Move, you great lummox!’
The only reply was a soft snore, just below her right ear.